THE WATER-WITCH, or THE SKIMMER OF THE SEAS, James Fenimore Cooper's great sea adventure tale of 1830, has something for every 21st Century reader.
The novel is about the British Colony of New York, about Manhattan Island and also about waters off Long Island (both then and in the novel called Nassau Island) during a summer between 1710 and 1714. For 1714 was the death year of Britain's last reigning Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, Protestant daughter of deposed Catholic King James II. And much is made in THE WATER-WITCH of Anne's reign drawing to a close because of her bad health and the legitimate by birth Catholic Royal males of the Stuart Dynasty on the verge of being set aside by act of Parliament in favor of Protestant relatives of the German House of Hanover. In 1664, English ships had seized New Amsterdam in a time of peace. After much fighting and negotiating England took permanent control of the Netherlands North American holdings by treaty in 1674. King Charles II of England bestowed the former Dutch colony on his brother James, Duke of York, Queen Anne's father -- to rule with none of the safeguards of a Royal Charter. Students of colonial history will be happily absorbed by the Cooper's atmospherics of old Dutch settlers, English newcomers, black slaves and menacing French warships based in Canada or the West Indies. This was the time (1702 - 1713) of Queen Anne's war in North America, an extension of the much larger War of the Spanish Succession (1701 - 1714). Have at it, please, ye history buffs!
THE WATER-WITCH is the name of a swift, elegant ship with a ominous-looking witch as its figurehead -- a carving thought to bestow magical powers on the ship. The witch even delivers messages to the crew in oracular texts, often from Shakespeare, especially MEASURE FOR MEASURE! This sailing vessel is an unarmed smuggler of luxury goods from around the world into Britain's North American colonies. Its legendary but unknown captain is widely styled "the Skimmer of the Seas" for his preternatural skills in navigation, making his ship invisible, unconquerable and on and on. The Water-Witch's nemesis in the summer of 171_ (as Cooper dates his yarn) is the HMS Coquette, a 20-gun ship under command of 25-year old American-born Captain Cornelius van Cuyler Ludlow.
Much of the novel is given to romance: between the non-rich Captain Ludlow and the immensely wealthy orphaned colonial heiress Alida de Barberie. Alida is also wooed by conventional, plodding New York Dutchman Oloff van Staats, who owns 100,000 acres at Kinderhook on the Hudson, where he enjoys the old Dutch title of Patroon. And unexpectedly a third apparent contender for Alida's hand appears, 22-year old Seadrift, who is looking for her guardian and uncle to peddle smuggled luxury goods but leaps into Alida's bedroom of the family summer house on Staten Island by mistake.
Alida's father was a French Huguenot who had fled persecution in France for asylum in New York. Alida is constantly described by her uncle, the somewhat hypocritical and immensely amusing Alderman Myndert van Berverout, as having an excess of hot Norman blood that gives her masculine courage, fearlessness and a fascination with new situations and challenges. At one point Alida, her uncle and others are aboard the HMS Coquette when the English warship is attacked by two French men of war. Taken below the water line for safety before what turns out to be a ferocious series of skirmishes at sea off Long Island, Alida assures her lover who seems to think her without fear:
"Notwithstanding your generous interpretation of my character, Ludlow, I am but woman after all."
"'I did not mistake you for an Amazon,' returned the young man, smiling, perceiving that she had checked her words by a sudden effort. 'All I expect from you is the triumph of reason over female terror'" (Ch. XXIX).
I hope that this tiny taste of a very rich concoction called THE WATER-WITCH has tempted you to open that novel's pages for yourself. I doubt that you will be disappointed.
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About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough (qigongbear)
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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Your land-loving Aldermen find their way from a Queen's cruiser to the shore, more easily than a seaman of twenty years' experience;" returned the other, without giving the burgher time to express his thanks for the polite offer of the other. "You have gone through the Gibraltar passage, without doubt, noble captain, being a gentleman that has got so fine a boat under his orders?